The Visitor’s Perspective

There’s a lot of talk lately about parking, whether it’s new no-parking developments on SE Division St. as we mentioned recently, occupying parking spaces with the newly debuted “street seats”, or claims that the car is the “most dangerous invention in the world”. Whatever your personal opinion it is a fact that we have to deal with cars, either inside or around them, on a daily basis. As someone who doesn’t drive, my perspective is mostly on a pedestrian level and only occasionally as a passenger. In my neighborhood in Portland I can walk to whatever services I need, several bus stops that can take me downtown and over the river, a MAX station, and even the streetcar which will soon be servicing the east side of town. Most of the time my experience inside cars involves an exciting trip to Ikea on the outskirts of town when there are larger items to retrieve, or in a taxi late at night after public transportation services have ended. It came as some surprise to me then to view the city, and my neighborhood in particular, from the perspective of an out-of-town visitor during my wedding a month ago.

Leading up to the event I advised my guests that Portland is difficult to drive in downtown (where the wedding would be) and that it is in fact a rather small downtown area that can be easily traversed via foot, streetcar, or taxi. I advised against renting a vehicle aiming for lower costs and convenience, though some (by necessity or choice) did drive in the city. Unbeknownst to me, this would become the takeaway first impression for most of the visitors: Portland hates cars. I will admit that I am very fond of this city and made it my goal to have a very Portland wedding that would show my family and friends this lovely city that I am making my life in. Having lived here on a car-lite lifestyle and studying livable urbanism for the past two years, it almost came as a kind of reverse culture-shock to hear family exclaiming their frustration at a lack of parking. Even with the delight of the celebration, their opinion of Portland will forever be peppered with the negative views they had simply because they attempted to traverse it by car.

“But that’s good urban planning!”, you may cry, as I did. Making parking less convenient does seem to have an effect, even on my newly-transplanted friends from Phoenix who refuse to drive unnecessarily if it means having to spend 20 minutes looking for a parking space when they return (unscientific, but a good example). Young people are driving less, and Portland in particular has the highest bicycle mode share split in the country (somewhere between 5-7%) with plans to increase this number. We know now, as many speculated, that building more roads or expanding highways does not decrease congestion but actually makes things worse. Why then, with all of these trends forecasted towards decidedly less car-reliant futures for urban areas (and environmental, economic, sustainability, and safety related reasons in tow), would we continue with outdated auto-centric urbanism such as increasing on-street parking or lots or widening roads all in the name of assisting an out-of-state tourist who decided to rent a car (no offense, Grandmom)?

When faced with being called “anti-car” or that there is a “war on cars”, it can seem disheartening, especially when I myself do not physically drive. There are many, many others, however, who share these same progressive planning feelings who do drive and know people who drive and are not bent on “waging a war” against something that we know will probably never go away. This blog post recently reposted on Planetizen sums it up nicely: “Cutting dependence on cars isn’t anti-car, it’s common sense”. As they mention in the article, it just makes more sense to be equitable and allow for that celebrated, and for some necessary, walkability. Sometimes I feel as though these principles are so solid, so common sense in my academic and personal circles, that I forget how difficult it can be to communicate all of this data to the public. So what does this mean for the image of a city? Even with all of the progressive planning and walkability, it’s entirely likely that some members of my family will think of Portland in a fairly negative light whether mentioning it in conversations or when choosing where to live. It’s true that you can’t please them all, but it’s clear a first impression can make or break a city, especially for those who don’t have the time or inclination to give it a second chance.

The Game of Urban Renewal

[Originally written by Jason King]

On Architizer, a post caught my attention – the The Game of Urban Renewal was developed by Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan created what I assume is an earnest social statement with this simple board game, “…which can go on infinitely with any number of players, simulates the fate of Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood, an intense locus of the city’s urban renewal efforts since 1947.  “In the game, players can assume one of the following roles: City Councilor, Developer, Community Activist, City Planning Employee, Man-On-The-Street, Academic Urban Theorist, Resident of Existing Development to be Demolished, Mayor, Random Federal Politician, Skyscraper Enthusiast, or Garbage Man. They take turns spinning the ‘Decision Engine Wheel’ which gives them license to place various types of development (condominium, office, commercial, park, etc.) on the board. Sometimes, players are given the option to bulldoze development, in which case they can use the ‘Tabula Rasa Rake’ to sweep any amount of placed development from the board. As all of this happens, the city evolves.”

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Sadly, many in the era of Urban Renewal of the 1950s, 60s and 70s  treated the lives of many urban residents much like a game, and the results are still being dealt with to this day.  The dynamics of urban renewal, and its mechanism are still a day to day phenomenon that impacts our lives, and, like much in the urban realm, it isn’t a simple answer of it being blatantly bad or good.   There were complete failures and other successes.  Does playing a game about this bring some of the issues and problems closer to our attention, particularly the bulldozer option to clear the slate, or does it over-simplify and diminish what were realm and lasting impacts to people’s lives, places, and cities.  Let’s spin the wheel and find out.

Livability, but would you want to live there?

[Originally written by Jason King. Recently edited for image accuracy by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman]

A poll from Gallup Wellbeing uses a range of metrics to delineate the ‘Best US State for Future Livability’, which is of course a very broad categorization, but interesting nonetheless.  Here are the top ten states compared to the bottom ten in the rankings:

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Perhaps not all of your top picks on where to live, or your bottom for that matter? A closer inspection of methods shows the devil in the details.  The “… 13 metrics encompassing economic, workplace, community, and personal choices Gallup used to assess the future livability of 50 states. The findings are based on the results of over 530,000 interviews with U.S. adults conducted Jan. 2, 2011, through June 30, 2012, as a part of Gallup Daily tracking and the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Previous results focusing on the best future region in the U.S. recently appeared in Business Insider as well as Gallup.com and the Gallup Business Journal.”

It brings up questions about methodology and also what defines livability in general.  Methodologically, that’s a pretty good sample, especially for a gallup poll – but i did not dig into the nitty gritty details.   In defining livability, do the metrics make sense?  The key metrics of job and economic stability are definitely important I would argue for stability, but not necessarily livability.  But maybe stability = livability in some people’s minds?

The idea of optimism is another that is tough to discern.  Is one optimistic because you are genuinely content, or because you don’t know better.  Depends on your definition of what is livable – but if you can be living in North Dakota, where i lived for over 20 years, and be optimistic, content, and employed, maybe that’s worth crappy winters, bad food, sports, hunting, and the like.

But Utah, huh?  I don’t think so.

Annotated Bibliography – 07.30.12

[Originally written by Jason King]

There a lot of information out there related to aspects of urbanism in its many facets, so in the spirit of academia, a feature here at THINK.urban will be to regularly compile and summarize some recent articles, posts, and other resources.   These are brief elements that don’t get their own post, but are interesting reading and worth sharing.  And, if you find something of interest, feel free to send us an email and we will include it in upcoming posts.

SimCity and new realism in simulation

SimCity and new realism in simulation

Following up a recent post on exurbs, suburbs, and growth, more on the state of the suburbs:

Community Types by Population and Number of Municipalities...

Community Types by Population and Number of Municipalities…

Some Portland specific links, because we love our local urban laboratory!

Terwilliger Parkway

Terwilliger Parkway

Square Pegs & Round Holes

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A conversation that permeates any discipline involved in the social sciences is how to evaluate the rigor of research as ‘science’.  There’s a ton of baggage related to this, particularly when compared to ‘hard’ sciences and the traditional  theory > hypothesis > testing  mode of  deductive reasoning.     A recent short article, “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy'” from April 1 in the NY Times tackles this issue in the social sciences by deconstructing the science implied in scientific reasoning.

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Authored by two political science instructors from University of Rochester, the article discusses the inherent bias in scientific communities, such as the National Science Foundation as well as peer-reviewed journals in only accepting and disseminating research that fits the hypothetico-deductive model.  They disagree with the focus on this as the only valid scientific method, saying that:

“…we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.”

There are countless examples of the sort of apologist writing in social science literature – with caveats on the lack of repeatability – specifically in the qualitative vs. quantitative debate – and the methods employed to imbue social research with testable, statistics based methods that give the illusion of hard science, or more annoyingly, prefacing research with long explanations of the need and validity of the qualitative methods.

There is a need for untested theoretical models in science, to shift thinking and to open up new avenues of dialogue, even in the absence of testability.  These give some pointers on how we may get to a solution, not the actual method, but the theory that guides us.  From the article:  “To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.”

The authors conclude that the overall hyper-focus on testing, rather than theorizing, limits the scope of research and our ability to understand issues.  Social science is difficult, due to myriad variables and actors interacting in tandem, to fit into a traditional hypothetico-deductive model of science, and to limit research to only that form of science limits our ability to tackle large issues.   What we need right now is the ability to do just that, not to regress into the purity of science – further distancing academia from the actual world it aims to study.  As the authors conclude:

“Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”

GOOD Video: Building a Bike Highway

Check it out!  The video is now live at GOOD Ideas for Cities, with a nice intro from Alissa Walker:

“Portland is famous for its vibrant biking culture, but the city’s infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the number of bikers on the streets. How do we create bikeways that will not only protect current cyclists, but also encourage more people to ride? As part of GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland, a team from THINK.urban presented its idea for creating a system of bike highways that run throughout the city. Instead of relegating cyclists to side streets and bike paths, the new bikeways would take over major Portland thoroughfares, making bikes more visible and creating more direct routes that would shorten ride times. Witnessing the shift from streets of mostly cars to mostly bikes will also start to create a sense that riders are prized and protected as a major transportation solution, not forced to stay in painted lanes.”

Challenge: Portland is known worldwide as a bike town; yet we have stalled when it comes to infrastructure. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?

Bike Portland: Jonathan Maus, Founder

THINK.urban: Jason King, Allison Duncan, Katrina Johnston

Comments welcome.  Enjoy!

GOOD Ideas for Portland: Cycling Infrastructure

[Originally written by Jason King, Allison Duncan and Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman]

THINK.urban, recently completed the presentation of our various concepts for GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland. The team was one of six, which included Wieden+Kennedy, Ziba, Sincerely Interested, OMFGco, and ADXPortland, all tackling tough ideas.  The THINK.urban concepts were developed alongside working alongside our urban leader, BikePortland.org founder Jonathan Maus, who presented the challenge:

“Now it’s time to do the big projects that present a challenge to politicians and the status quo, but that also present an exciting opportunity for the health of our city. But what we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?”

THE CONTEXT

Portland is a great city for cycling – and has a lot of great infrastructure and programs to support and grow ridership.

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This gives us a ridership of almost 7% of commuters, which makes Portland the top large city in North America for ridership – (sorry Minneapolis)

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The statistics are a bit different when compared to other cities around the globe, where Portland is way down on the list.  Using some comparative metrics, we set the bar for ‘World Class’ at 30%, meaning if Portland is to truly become a world-class bicycling city, we need to expand significantly beyond our current level.

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THE TARGET:  INTERESTED BUT CONCERNED

For Portland to become ‘World Class’ we cannot keep doing the same things, but need to re-envision the infrastructure that make’s bicycle a choice that is on-par with other modes of transportation.  As seen in a much published graphic, we’ve already captured the ‘Strong and Fearless’ and have no worries about the ‘Enthused and Confident’.  What we need to target is the 60% of people who are interested in cycling, but concerned about safety, wayfinding, and other issues.

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Looking at the research, we found there are three elements that are necessary to capture the 60% that are interested but concerned.  A system has to have three elements, which are:

SAFE:

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CONNECTED:

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LEGIBLE:

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THE SYSTEM:  PDX LINK

To make a system that is Safe, Connected, and Legible – we looked at a variety of factors.  One aspect of the system design included branding and system graphics, which were envisioned as a chain which evoked the idea of links – the system became a noun and a verb – PDX LINK – seen with the ‘green’ paint inside as well, which reflected the plans for the concept to increase wayfinding of bike routes.

Another aspect was to incorporate the existing quadrant system, each acting as a link in the chain of PDX LINK. The radiating graphic below depicts the 5 quadrants, a play on geography that makes Portland a unique place to live. Each quad, including North, gets a unique color scheme, along with a simple 2 letter designation that is also incorporated into signage and other graphics.

There was a conceptual mapping component as well including our proposal for two-way cycletracks on main routes, connected by the wayfinding based on quadrants – which is seen above. Each of these ‘highways’ would be located within 1 miles of all residents and businesses, and fed by a system of local streets.

Using Portland Streets as examples, we determined a specific typology of streets in a hierarchy, starting with the highways, and including the boulevards, corridors, and greenways as a complete system.  A couple of examples of before and after sections show the change, and inclusion of a two-way, separated cycletrack that ‘Takes the Lane’ and creates a safe, connected, and legible system.

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Starting with these major roadways, the further development of a hierarchy of bike routes, from major Highways and Boulevards, to less traveled Corridors and Greenways – nested inside one another for a complete system. A snapshot of a portion of downtown shows these designations.

The final piece was conceptual sketches – simple before and after graphics to showcase the new idea, on the street. We did a number of them connecting the Cully Neighborhood in Northeast Portland to the Downtown core, using no ‘back street solutions’.   The first starts on NE 57th, with a heavily vegetated buffer providing necessary separation from the traffic to ensure safety for riders.

Before

The second is located along East Burnside – where we are recoupling the one-way to include a two way bike route connected across to downtown.

Before


Another option is downtown, along SW Broadway, where the existing cycle-track was expanded near Portland State University. Note wayfinding and access to multiple modes of transportation throughout.

Before

We did many more graphics, which will get shared down the line. A few more ‘after’ shots include Sandy Boulevard and the Burnside Bridge. The opportunity to make ‘cycling an everyday thing’ offers the ability to go for a ride with your favorite dog, or stop by for some roadside bike-powered gelato, and take the whole family for a ride to the Saturday Market. A safe, connected and legible system can make Portland a world-class bike city.

Hopefully these images help in that effort.

> Check out a PDF of our presentation here, and stay tuned for the video to be posted at GOOD Ideas for Cities shortly.

New Resource for Design Research

A new book worth exploring that I just heard about is  “The Designer’s Guide to Doing Research: Applying Knowledge to Inform Design”  by Sally Augustin and Cindy Coleman and published by Wiley (2012).  There is a dearth of resources for designers to conduct and translate researchers, and on the flip side, for researchers to conduct and write research that is useful to practitioners – so a well constructed resource like this definitely piques the interest.

0470601736As mentioned in the summary on the Wiley site: “The competitive design market and the need to create enduring value place high demands on architects and designers to expand their knowledge base to be able to digest and utilize multiple sources of information. Expected by their clients to be well versed on all aspects of a project, time-constrained architects and designers need quick responses in the face of daily challenges. As a result, these professionals must—more than ever—rely on, and apply, readily accessible information culled from sound research to gain a competitive advantage.  The Designer’s Guide to Doing Research serves as an introductory guide on the general concepts and processes that define “good” research.”

While it may be a bit simplified for seasoned researchers, the book will allow better connections between design and research, allow design decisions to be validated for clients, and look deeper at impacts of design on users and the larger community.  The complications of our modern world make research vital, and it is impossible for designers to have the available knowledge for informed decision-making with employing some form of research (or better yet, hiring a group like THINK.urban to conduct project specific research for you!).  Basic concepts of research ethics, methods, information gathering, and more will at least equip designers in the questions to ask, and how they might better ask them before, during, and after design processes.

The authors have some credibility.  Some brief bios from Amazon:

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a practicing environmental psychologist, a principal at Design with Science, and the editor of Research Design Connections. She is regularly invited to speak at schools, research institutions, conferences, and on National Public Radio. Sally is the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley). Learn more about using environmental psychology at Sally’s websites, www.placecoach.com (for residential applications), www.designwithscience.com (for commercial applications), and www.researchdesignconnections.com.

Cindy Coleman is a design strategist with Gensler and the editor of the Interior Design Handbook of Professional Practice (published by Interior Design magazine and McGraw-Hill). She is an assistant professor in the Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects Department at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a contributing editor to both Interior Design magazine and the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Chicago) journal, Chicago Architect.

Have one on order – so a review upcoming.

GOOD Bicycle Transportation

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“What we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center

Our challenge is set.  As one of the creative teams working on the GOOD Ideas for Cities, we are tasked with coming up with the future of bicycle transportation in Portland.  As envisioned by our local expert liason, Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org the scenario is this:

TRANSPORTATION

When it comes to bicycle transportation, Portland is at a crossroads. We are known worldwide as a bike town; yet we have stalled when it comes to building a network of truly world-class bikeways in the central city. We have picked all the low-hanging fruit. Now it’s time to do the big projects that present a challenge to politicians and the status quo, but that also present an exciting opportunity for the health of our city. But what we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?

Recent historical trends show that while auto use seems to have plateaued, bike use has skyrocketed and shows little sign of tapering off. The biggest risk to making even more significant jumps in bike use is that the vast majority of Portlanders simply feel afraid to ride a bike close to auto traffic. The City of Portland and other local agencies already know what to do and we have some great examples already deployed: the cycle tracks on SW Broadway near PSU and on SW Moody toward the South Waterfront district come to mind. However, those facilities lack connections to the rest of the network and in the case of PSU, they are woefully underdesigned. They are both islands of possibility amid a sea of reality.

The neat thing about this challenge is that in many ways we know what success could look like. Many of our local leaders have been to places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where bicycling in dense urban environments isn’t just viable, it’s prioritized over auto access. The result is happy, healthy citizens, fewer transportation costs for everyone, and much more efficient and livable city. How do we help Portland move towards that same bicycle-centric reality?

One of the resources that Maus mentioned is the NACTO Urban Biking Design Guide (image excerpt above), of which included Portland transportation planners and traffic engineers were part of a major effort to bring cities across the country together to create a design manual that frees them from the shackles of outdated, state-run, auto-centric design guidelines.

We have until February 16th to prepare concepts, where they will be presented alongside the rest of the teams working on their specific issues.  Stay tuned for more info!

Science of Pedestrian Movements

[Originally written by Jason King]

An interesting article from the Economist on ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘ echoes much of the seminal research of William Whyte (City), Edward T. Hall (The Hidden Dimension), and others that have closely studied the behavior of pedestrians and other users of public spaces.   The interplay of cultural habits that tells us to step right or left to avoid collisions on a busy street can lead to a certain inherent poetic ‘choreography’ when viewed.  There are different theories on how these actions are coordinated, and the article focuses on new scientific methods for predicting and studying pedestrian movements.  As Jane Jacobs mentioned in The Death and Life of Great American Cities this urban realm is likened to a ballet:

“It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

It was interesting, in this context, to remember my recent travels to Europe, namely London, where traffic on the roads occupies the left lane, but as mentioned in the article, there is not a correlation between this and pedestrian movement.  While they mention that London follows pedestrians on the right, that is an oversimplification, as it doesn’t necessarily follow, at least in my experience.  Many people follow the walking to the left, which is culturally learned in the UK, mirroring the driving, but the influx on many non-locals that have their own rules often leads this to degenerate into chaos.  Thus there is not a typical rule of thumb – and you are therefore required to be much more actively engaged in the surroundings to navigate successfully.

As mentioned in the originally referenced article, culture is less important in this process as is habit and repetition: “Mehdi Moussaid of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, this is a behaviour brought about by probabilities. If two opposing people guess each other’s intentions correctly, each moving to one side and allowing the other past, then they are likely to choose to move the same way the next time they need to avoid a collision. The probability of a successful manoeuvre increases as more and more people adopt a bias in one direction, until the tendency sticks. Whether it’s right or left does not matter; what does is that it is the unspoken will of the majority.”

The importance of this sort of study (sorry thought, as mentioned, this not a ‘youngish field’) has long been known in urban realms.  It is being rediscovered by other sciences and disciplines (seems like everyone wants to study the city now!) such as physics, who are using modeling in the context of crowd safety, particularly in a more multi-cultural world, to better understand what has long been studied the old-fashioned way – by watching people in person or through video.

While thinking of people in similar terms of particles may be helpful, as people are governed by many rules – there is somewhat of a wildcard element in human behavoir as people act as “particles with a ‘will'”, doing sometimes unpredictable things and non-linear behaviors.   The issues with modeling are obvious, when you take into account the sheer number of variables at play even in the most simple pedestrian-to-pedestrian interaction.  The article mentions this in the context of a study between Indian and German pedestrians, where the direction is also complicated by cultural spatial rules as well:

“Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians.  Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians. An experiment in 2009 tested the walking speeds of Germans and Indians by getting volunteers in each country to walk in single file around an elliptical, makeshift corridor of ropes and chairs. At low densities the speeds of each nationality are similar; but once the numbers increase, Indians walk faster than Germans. This won’t be news to anyone familiar with Munich and Mumbai, but Indians are just less bothered about bumping into other people.”

It would be interesting to do a lit review of cultural spatial studies, building on the work of Hall, to see if these have been updated, and if we have learned anything new in the past 20 years, since The Hidden Dimension was published in 1990.  The world has changed dramatically and is much more global, thus it makes sense that even this sort of revolutionary study, while still somewhat applicable, will have changed due to a changed world.

This goes as well to updating Whyte’s classic video studies of public spaces (i.e. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces), which are great but extremely dated and not reflective of a much more culturally rich society.  A screen shot of one of the videos shows a different environment than what exists even 20 to 30 years later.  This doesn’t mean his data are any less relevant, but that we must continue to engage in further study to learn more.

YouTube-The-Social-Life-of-Small-Urban-Spaces-1_6

A research agenda that looks at these phenomena, how we use spaces, how we react and incorporate multiple cultural viewpoints, and more is vital to our continual understanding of proxemics, pedestrian movement, crowd dynamics, and more.  This can be done by incorporation of more scientific modeling of typically non-urban disciplines, such as the complex modeling processes in physics.  It is, to me,  much more interesting  to envision this study through updates of the seminal urban research studies, which would be a worthy endeavor in our ever globalizing world and our constantly diversifying cities.